Behind the Photograph: Flammable Film

Contributed by Emma Lavoie

Stuart Travis mural at the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology

Ever wonder what lies behind a photograph? Beyond the simple description scrawled on the back of each image? The Peabody collection contains more than 600,000 artifacts, photographs, and documents. The Peabody’s photograph collection, specifically, is extensive and contains many interesting, yet untold stories. To bring these stories and photographs to light, we would like to share them with YOU, fellow readers, in our blog series, Behind the Photograph. You can find these stories using our BehindThePhoto tag on our blog.

The Mural

As the Peabody enters the pre-construction phase of a much-needed renovation project, I’ve been looking back at some of our old photos of the building. This image in particular is fascinating, as it was taken during the installation of the Peabody’s Stuart Travis mural in 1938. Those of you who have visited the Peabody may find the room in this image familiar – it’s the interior of our front entrance door! Although those columns behind the mural have since been removed, the crown molding, floor, and archways are still present at the Peabody today. Around the perimeter of the image you’ll find what looks to be an old grandfather clock against the wall to the left. If you peer closely just through both archways (to the right and left) you’ll see glimpses of exhibit cases where the Peabody’s first floor galleries housed exhibits and displayed artifacts.

The Peabody’s mural was created by American artist, illustrator, and designer, Stuart Travis (1868-1942). Stuart Travis is well-known to the Phillips Academy Andover community. Not only can you find his work at the Peabody, but all over – the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library, Paresky Commons, the Gelb science building, and the wrought iron gate at the entrance to the Moncrieff Cochran Bird Sanctuary. Stuart Travis is buried in the Chapel Cemetery here on campus.

The mural was installed in the Peabody’s central staircase where it continues to reside today. Titled “Culture Areas of North America,” this mural reflects ideas about anthropology and archaeology in the 1930s and 1940s. The mural features many drawings of artifacts from various sites and museum collections, some drawings even link to archaeological works by long-time Peabody Director, Warren K. Moorehead (1924-1938) as well as Director, Douglas Byers (1938-1968) and Curator, Fred Johnson (1936-1968).

The mural was dated 1938, however, Stuart Travis continued to make additions through 1942. The mural was later restored in 1997 by Christy Cunningham-Adams through the generous support of the Abbot Academy Fund. If you look closely at the image, you’ll see the mural was created in sections (i.e. the very fine line located down the middle of the mural). One interesting detail you cannot see from the photo, but rather in person is the various pencil notes and markings that still remain on the mural. This leads me to believe that perhaps the mural was never quite finished or rather, some new additions planned for the mural never came to fruition.

For more information about the Peabody’s Stuart Travis mural, check out this blog by Peabody Director, Ryan Wheeler – Culture Areas of North America: The Peabody’s Stuart Travis Mural.

Another fascinating find and story is this blog from our past temporary archivist, Irene Gates, who discovered six small notebooks belonging to Stuart Travis depicting illustrations and information about the Indigenous communities represented in the mural.

The Film

Mural history aside, the material image itself has quite the hazardous history (or should we say fiery?) The original image of the mural installation was made on a nitrate negative, a type of film used as a base for photographic roll film created by George Eastman in 1889. Nitrate was used for photographic and professional 35mm motion picture film until the 1950s.

What many may (or may not) know is nitrate film is highly flammable and also toxic when decomposing with age. New nitrate film could ignite with the heat of a cigarette, while decomposing nitrate film can ignite spontaneously at temperatures as low as 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Once ignited, nitrate film burns rapidly, fueled by its own oxygen, and releasing toxic fumes.

Before you jump to thoughts of flammable film spontaneously combusting in the Peabody’s collections, let me assure you THERE IS NO nitrate film currently located at the Peabody. But at one point in time there used to be nitrate film in the Peabody’s archival photograph collection, YIKES! As of July 2010, all nitrate negatives were digitized and then discarded due to the film’s potential hazard to the Peabody collections and building.

With that out of the way, let’s dive in to the history of nitrate film and how much of this history went up in smoke. We see its legacy in Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage – a bus operator tells a young boy he cannot bring two reels of nitrate film onboard, it’s flammable after all. Then in Quentin Taratino’s Inglourious Basterds – nitrate film’s volatile chemistry is used for his alternate history story of a plot to assassinate high-ranking officials of the Nazi party, including Hitler.

Nitrate fires were infrequent compared to the rapid spread of cinema, however, when disaster occurred at the hands of nitrate film, the results were quite devastating. One such fire occurred at Paris’s 1897 Charity Bazaar, claiming 126 lives many of which were women. In 2019, a French drama miniseries debuted on Netflix called Le Bazar de la Charité (The Bonfire of Destiny) depicting this destructive time in history.

The 1940s saw numerous fires in New York City involving nitrate film. Investigators found no evidence of negligence by personnel or the careless use of cigarettes. In fact, it appeared the nitrate film spontaneously ignited due to abnormally hot summers. Since burning nitrate produces its own oxygen, submerging the film in water is futile. In addition, the fumes given off by its ignition are highly toxic and hamper any efforts to suppress the fire. These fumes contain oxides of nitrogen which, if inhaled, can be fatal. Unfortunately, nitrate film must burn itself out.

Besides its combustive properties, nitrate is extremely fragile. Overtime, the film naturally shrinks and deteriorates, even when treated with care.  Film archivists in the 1970s and 80s expressed urgency for the preservation of nitrate film using the slogan, “Nitrate Won’t Wait,” with images of the destruction of vault fires such as the 1978 vault fire at the National Archives and Records Service in Suitland, Maryland, which destroyed 12.6 million feet of historical newsreel footage and outtakes donated by Universal Pictures. As a result of this, many nitrate negatives and film have been digitized or reprinted on polyester stock (the replacement to nitrate beginning in the 1950s).

How to Spot Decomposition in Nitrate Film (sourced from the Science & Media Museum Blog)

1.) Fading picture with amber discoloration

2.) Film becomes brittle; emulsion becomes adhesive and film sticks together

(At stages 1 and 2, film can be copied)

3.) Film has a noxious odor

(At stage 3 some parts of the film may be copied)

4.) Film is soft and covered with a viscous froth

5.) Film is deteriorating into a brownish acrid powder

  (At stages 4 and 5, film should be immediately destroyed by local fire department)

On the other side of the argument, many believe nitrate film is a viable artifact that doesn’t have to be destroyed or hidden away. In 2015, the Nitrate Picture Show was created by the Eastman Museum to raise awareness of nitrate and preserve what remains. The Eastman Museum currently houses 24,054 reels of nitrate film. 

Circling back to our mural image – I’d like to provide the current status of our Peabody mural during the pre-construction phase of our planned renovation work. We are taking protective measures to keep it safe during upcoming renovation work. Here you can see a temporary wall being placed over the mural as a protective layer.

The Peabody mural receiving a temporary wall for protection during building renovations.

Behind the Photograph: “A Good Maine Dinner”

Contributed by Emma Lavoie

Warren K. Moorehead and crew in camp, Penobscot River, Maine, 1912. Photograph by Charles A. Perkins. Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology, Photograph Collection

Ever wonder what lies behind a photograph? Beyond the simple description scrawled on the back of each image? The Peabody collection contains more than 600,000 artifacts, photographs, and documents. The Peabody’s photograph collection, specifically, is extensive and contains many interesting, yet untold stories. To bring these stories and photographs to light, we would like to share them with YOU, fellow readers, in our blog series, Behind the Photograph. You can find these stories using our BehindThePhoto tag on our blog.

The year is 1912, the site is an expedition campsite located along the Penobscot River in Maine. On the right a crew member sits on the ground with his back to the camera, legs stretched out in front of him, ankles crossed, balancing his dinner on his lap. Near the tent we see three individuals close together. One sitting through the smoky haze of the campfire, another standing with his plate in his hands – last to get his meal or maybe in line for seconds? An apron on the third individual identifies the camp cook. To the left two individuals sit on tree stumps with dinner plates on their laps, enjoying “a good Maine dinner,” as the title of this photograph describes. The individual in black, farthest to the left, is none other than Warren K. Moorehead, the Peabody’s first curator and Peabody director from 1924 to 1938.

Warren K. Moorehead and Maine Expeditions

During this decade, Maine was a popular destination for archaeological field projects sponsored by the Peabody (known then as the Archaeology Department at Phillips Academy Andover.) Warren K. Moorehead’s first expedition to Maine was organized in 1912. The camping image above was taken along the Penobscot River during this expedition. This venture was so successful that Moorehead sent both survey and excavation crews to Maine each summer for the next three years. During this period, crews surveyed a large portion of Maine’s rivers and excavated dozens of sites. Maine remained the primary destination for the Peabody’s field projects for the remainder of this decade. Although Moorehead’s archaeological interests were focused elsewhere after 1920, he continued to send crews to Maine as late as 1926.

Glass Plate Negative

Much of the Peabody photographic collection is fragile. The Maine expeditions took place at a time when photography, as well as archaeology, was undergoing radical change. With the introduction of smaller and less expensive film cameras, the large and cumbersome view cameras with glass plate negatives were quickly replaced. This transition is reflected in the Moorehead photographic collection.

This image is one of 130 glass plate negatives in the Moorehead photographic collection at the Peabody. Most of these glass plate negatives (including this image) are 5 x 7” in size and appear to have been taken with a Rochester Optical Company, New Model (1890) view camera.  There are a few larger negatives in the Peabody’s photographic collection that are about 6 x 8” in size that were taken with an Improved Model Seneca view camera (1906). The Seneca view camera is still located at the Peabody to this day!

1906 Improved Model Seneca view camera at the Peabody

For further reading about Warren K. Moorehead and his archaeological excavations in Maine check out Warren K. Moorehead’s text, The Archaeology of Maine.

Behind the Photograph: Traveler in Tweed

Contributed by Emma Lavoie

Pipe in mouth and axe in hand, a man in a tweed suit stands in front of a 1940s Dodge “Woody” station wagon brimming with suitcases and archaeological gear. The crates on the ground by his feet are labeled, “F. JOHNSON, PEABODY FNDN, ANDOVER, MASS.” Who is this man and where could he be traveling to?

The year is 1948 and this traveler in tweed is Frederick Johnson, curator of the Peabody (known as the Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology at the time) from 1936-1968.

Fred Johnson with expedition gear in front of the Peabody, 1948.

Frederick Johnson (1904-1994) joined the Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology as Curator in 1936. He held this position until 1968, serving one year as Director before retiring in 1969. During his time at the Peabody, Johnson initiated an archaeological excavation program for students at Phillips Academy. He also organized the Committee for the Recovery of Archaeological Remains (1945-1968) and chaired the American Anthropological Association’s Committee on Radioactive Carbon 14 (1948-1968.)

Johnson is recognized for contributing to the development of an interdisciplinary approach to archaeology, using scientists from various fields to study archaeological problems together. The Boylston Street Fish Weir project (1939) in Boston, MA as well as the Andover-Harvard Yukon Expedition (1944 and 1948) were two examples of this method.

The image of Fred Johnson above was taken before his trip to the Yukon Territory for the last year of the Andover-Harvard Yukon Expedition. This five-month field project combined archaeological and geobotanical research in the unknown northwestern interior of North America and was carried out jointly by the Peabody and Harvard University (funded by additional sources, including the Wenner-Gren Foundation.)

The journey began from North Dakota to Burwash Landing, Yukon with research in parts of the Shakwak and Dezadeash Valleys in southwestern Yukon. The project leaders were Fred Johnson and Professor Hugh Raup, botanist and Director of the Harvard Forest in Harvard, MA. Two Harvard graduate students served as assistants in the botanical and archaeological research, Bill Drury and Dr. Elmer Harp, Jr.

Harp was a recent Harvard graduate and Curator of Anthropology for the Dartmouth College Museum in Hanover, NH. He documented the trip through field notes and his own photographs. Below is one of Harp’s photographs taken at the beginning of their trip. Do you notice anything similar between these two images? That is the same station wagon in each photograph and yes, that is Fred Johnson with his pipe again! Harp and Drury were tasked with driving the expedition’s station wagon from Boston to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory – standard labor assigned to graduate students in the field.

Bill Drury, Fred Johnson, and Elmer Harp at the start of the Andover-Harvard Yukon Expedition, May 4, 1948. Photograph by Dr. Elmer Harp, Jr., Professor of Anthropology Emeritus, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH.

According to Harp’s recordings from the expedition, Johnson and Raup conducted several projects in the early years of the Yukon project (1943-1944) exploring for evidence of the first appearance of humans in the New World. The 1948 project was to search for archaeological sites along the eastern borders of the Rocky Mountains via the Alcan Highway. This was the first time the highway was opened to civilian traffic since the beginning of WWII. The Andover-Harvard expeditions went on to represent the first systematic explorations of Yukon’s prehistoric past.

Further Readings and Resources

For more information on the Yukon project, see its publication: Investigations in Southwest Yukon, by Fred Johnson, Hugh Raup, and Richard MacNeish, 1964

Explore Elmer Harp, Jr.’s field notes on the Andover-Harvard Yukon Expedition: North to the Yukon Territory via the Alcan Highway in 1948: Field Notes of The Andover-Harvard Expedition.

For more information on the Andover-Harvard Yukon Expedition photographs by Fred Johnson check out our blog: Cataloging photographs in our database, and the Andover-Harvard Yukon Expedition photographs

Behind the Photograph: Unpacking the Peabody Collection

Contributed by Emma Lavoie

Throughout history we have used images to tell a story and to document a period or memory in time. Today our society continues to find ways to connect and communicate through social media and digital platforms, using images to share their lives and stories more than ever.

The Peabody collection contains more than 600,000 artifacts, photographs, and documents. The Peabody’s photograph collection, specifically, is extensive and contains many interesting, yet untold stories. To bring these stories and photographs to light, we would like to share them with YOU, fellow readers, in our new blog series, Behind the Photograph.

Our inspiration for this new series of blogs was a photograph of Warren K. Moorehead and the Fort Ancient excavation in Ohio. You can view this story here! To kick off the Behind the Photograph blog series, we’d like to share a second photograph from the Peabody collections.

Students unpack Robert S. Peabody’s collections in the school gymnasium, circa 1901. Lantern slide, from the photographic collections, Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology

This photograph is a lantern slide from the Peabody’s photographic collections. The photograph depicts Phillips Academy students in 1901 unpacking Robert S. Peabody’s donated collections in the school’s old gymnasium. The old gymnasium was located in the Brick Academy – the gym incarnation of Bulfinch Hall. At the time, a new gym (Borden Gymnasium) and the Archaeology Department (later known as the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology) were in the process of being designed and built on the Phillips Academy campus. In June 1896, fire had gutted the gym leaving the brick walls intact. Although the building was re-roofed, it went largely unused until the Peabody collection was sorted and stored there in 1901.

Earlier in this same year, the Archaeology Department was founded on March 21st at a Trustees meeting held in Boston. An endowment and collection were given from an anonymous donor, now known to be Robert S. Peabody. The school chose Principal Bancroft of the Academy, Professor Warren K. Moorehead, and Dr. Charles Peabody (founder’s son) as the officers of the Archaeology Department. Warren K. Moorehead served as the curator and chief executive officer of the department, while Charles Peabody served as honorary director. For more information on the founding of the Peabody Institute, check out this article from the Phillips Academy student newspaper, the Phillipian.

As the development and construction of the Archaeology Department building was underway, archaeology classes and the Archaeology Department’s collections were held in the old gymnasium. An article from the Phillipian states that Dr. Peabody and Professor Moorehead wished to unpack certain specimens and students would not attend lectures for some weeks. Instead, students met in the old gym to unpack Robert S. Peabody’s founding collection and begin preliminary sorting of the artifacts before they were relocated to the completed Archaeology Building several years later. The 1901 article states that “students found the laboratory work unique and interesting.”

If you look closely in the image, you will see a man standing in the background to the left of the long work table. It certainly looks like Warren K. Moorehead overseeing the sorting and work of the students. Also in the image are the very wooden drawers that are still located at the Peabody today!

In an effort to maintain the sustainability and integrity of the Peabody’s collections, the Peabody collection team is working to rehouse all artifacts from these wooden drawers to acid free collection boxes to better preserve and protect the collection materials. It is our hope in the future to provide proper storage space and conditions that match the preservation needs of our collections.

As more and more wooden drawers are emptied through our inventory and rehousing project, we no longer have use for them. As a result of this, we recently began giving away these wooden drawers to those who may find ways to repurpose them through various DIY projects. You can check out these projects here, here, and here!

If you are interested in having your very own historic drawer, you can contact me at to schedule a safe and socially distanced pickup. (Who knows… you may even get one of the drawers that were originally in this photograph!)

This image marks a significant time in the Peabody’s history, representing the introduction of archaeology to PA students and the birth of the Peabody Institute and its collections. To learn more about archaeology at Phillips Academy check out Peabody Director, Dr. Ryan Wheeler’s blog and article, Archaeology in the Classroom at a New England Prep School.

Behind the Photograph – W.K. Moorehead and the Fort Ancient Excavation

Contributed by Emma Lavoie

Our last newsletter sparked the interest of many readers with a featured black and white photograph of seven individuals posing with shovels, trowels, and cigars in hand. Their eyes focused intently on the camera, full of hope and mystery – reminds me of a moment like the Carpe Diem scene from Dead Poet’s Society. By popular demand, we share some additional information about this photograph.

Plate XIV – The Excavation of a Stone Heap near Station 246, Fort Ancient Site, Ohio. Photographed by C.J. Strong. Warren K. Moorehead (second from right), Joseph Wigglesworth (closest to camera on left with trowel), and unidentified field crew members.

This photograph was taken at the Fort Ancient site in Warren County, Ohio in the late nineteenth century. The photograph is of Warren K. Moorehead (second from right) and some of his field crew. Another man is identified in the photograph as Joseph Wigglesworth (closest to camera on left with trowel), a collector and amateur archaeologist from Wilmington, Delaware. You can view the original image in Moorehead’s publication of the Fort Ancient site here.

Fort Ancient is a series of earthen embankments, known as earthworks, with 18,000 feet of earthen walls enclosing 100 acres near the Little Miami River. People of the Hopewell culture (100 B.C. to 500 A.D.) built these walls and many other features both within the enclosure and on the steep valleys that surround the site. Investigations at Fort Ancient began in the early 1800s as mapping expeditions, expanding to surface collecting and full-scale excavations near the end of the century.

Warren K. Moorehead was the first curator for the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society (now the Ohio History Connection). In 1893, Frederic Ward Putnam hired Moorehead to conduct excavations at Fort Ancient and obtain artifacts for the Columbian Exposition. One of Moorehead’s major contributions to archaeology was the preservation of Fort Ancient as an archaeological park. Later in his career, Moorehead served as the curator and then director of the Phillips Academy Department of Archaeology (now the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology) in Andover, Massachusetts, where he conducted important excavations at the Cahokia site in Illinois and the Etowah site in Georgia.

The Fort Ancient site is maintained by the Ohio History Connection and is a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Along with its earthworks, the site includes a museum about Ohio’s ancient history. You can explore the site’s website here!

Click on the following links for more information on the Fort Ancient site, Warren K. Moorehead, or Moorehead’s publication on Fort Ancient.